Okay, we’re getting serious here! Towards the end of pregnancy already! When you’re waiting to experience the first signs of labor (which we’re going to talk about very soon), it can be very hard. You know it’s almost time, you’re as big as house (or so you think), you’re exhausted, you have to pee again the second you finish….
Seeing signs of labor would be so very welcome! But if it’s your first baby, you may not quite know what to look for when that big moment comes!
On TV they make it look so obvious. The woman just suddenly stops, says, “I think the baby’s coming!” has a huge contraction out of nowhere (and regular, 2-minute-apart contractions from there on out.) Her water often breaks in a huge gush, and the baby is born quickly after a mad dash to the hospital. There are no false alarms, slow starts, or “Well, I think this is it….”
Of course, real life is a tad bit different! If you’ve had a baby before, you’re probably laughing right now. Because, in fact, it’s very different. In fact, every labor can be so different that even moms who have had a couple (or five) babies can be surprised and still wonder, “Is it…?” So, just to clear things up a little, let’s talk about the signs of labor!
Signs of Labor
Now…you should only see these when you are past 37 weeks. If you see any of these signs of labor before 37 weeks, call your doctor immediately, and go to a hospital if you cannot reach him/her. It may be a false alarm, but you don’t want to risk pre-term labor (next week’s topic).
If you note these after 37 weeks, it’s okay to watch, wait, and see what happens, but don’t hesitate to call if either 1) they asked you to, or 2) you feel uneasy waiting. You may notice:
- The baby “dropping” or settling lower in your pelvis (usually a few days to a few weeks before labor starts)
- A sudden “burst of energy,” often called nesting
- A feeling that labor is near
- Loose bowels
- Increase in cervical mucus, especially if tinged with blood (losing your mucus plug)
- Mild contractions that are regular, and growing stronger, longer and closer together. They do not go away if you move around, lie down, or change positions (if they do it’s not real labor)
- A trickle or gush of fluid (your water breaking)
- Cramping and/or back pain that won’t go away
- Feeling of intense pressure very low (baby’s head pressing down)
For the first 5 signs of labor, there is no reason to rush to call your doctor — even if you are not quite at your due date yet. These are not signs that anything “is” happening, just that it might happen soon.
It is normal, especially in first pregnancies, for the baby to drop by 32 – 34 weeks, but it does not mean you will deliver early (my first baby dropped at 34 weeks and was born just after 39 weeks).
A feeling that labor is near, or a burst of energy can also happen a few weeks before labor, or multiple times, or just because you’re plain sick of being pregnant! Again, no rush to call.
As far as losing your mucus plug, you may lose it over several days and not notice. You may lose a big glob at once. It is possible to lose days before labor, or when you are already in active labor. You may want to call if it is well before your due date just to check in, so that you’re not caught off guard if pre-term labor does start. But it’s not an emergency.
Contractions and More
Contractions, your water breaking, intense back pain, and intense pressure low are all signs that the baby is coming soon, and that you are in real labor. Make sure that your contractions are real (though again, if pre-term, just call) before calling your doctor or going anywhere. If they’re erratic, or go away when you change positions, they’re just “practice,” called Braxton-Hicks.
A fun note: you’ll experience these Braxton-Hicks earlier and earlier in each subsequent pregnancy. It’s not uncommon to feel them at the beginning of the second trimester in third, fourth, or fifth pregnancies! (Just extra fun!) I felt them starting around just 8 – 9 weeks with my fifth baby! Some women worry this is a sign of miscarriage, but it often isn’t in later pregnancies.
There is no way to guess exactly how your labor will go based on how your contractions start. Some women do start with rather erratic, far apart contractions (that don’t go away while changing positions!), like 5 min., 15 min., 8 min., etc. And yet, they settle into a regular pattern soon and have their babies in a few hours. A very rare few never settle into a regular pattern and still deliver quickly! Others start labor with contractions two minutes apart and strong. But they might be in labor for 12 hours or more. (Yes…this happened to me!)
Back pain can be a sign of back labor, and you may not feel “normal” contractions. But, you may still be dilating. Intense, low pressure can mean your water is about to break, or your baby is extra low because your are dilating (even if you don’t feel the contractions, which happens very rarely).
How Do I Know It’s Real?
Many women want to be sure this is the real thing. There are a few ways to tell:
- Your water breaks (and you’re sure you didn’t wet yourself!)
- Contractions are strong and consistent, even if not very close together yet
- You check yourself and note that your cervix is changing
Those are the best ways to tell for sure. Several women wake up late in pregnancy, wet, thinking their water broke — but did, unfortunately, just wet the bed! (Embarrassing? Yes. Sorry. It’s a good idea to keep a waterproof pad on your bed late in pregnancy in case you wet the bed or your water really does break.)
Some midwives will give you some little papers which check for amniotic fluid. If you dribble on them (so ladylike!) and they turn a certain color, it will prove your water has broken.
Once you’re in real labor, nothing will stop your contractions. You can lie down, walk around, sip water, change positions — and they will not let up. They will get your attention and they will come regularly. Yes, that’s real labor too!
You can also learn to check yourself, to see if your cervix is dilating or effacing. Effacing is harder to tell. Basically — wash your hands and sit on the toilet in a comfortable position. Reach up high until you find your cervix. If you’ve used natural family planning to avoid or conceive, you may already be familiar with this.
When you reach your cervix you’ll know, it will feel a bit harder than the rest of the tissue. You may also be able to feel something very hard — your baby’s head! When you find your cervix, note how long it is. That is, how much you feel before your baby’s head. It will get shorter and shorter as labor progresses until there’s none left.
You can also note how “open” it is. You’ll feel a small hole in the center, that will get larger as labor progresses. You can estimate how many centimeters dilated you are from this. If you check late in pregnancy before going into labor, it is possible to be 3 – 5 cm dilated and not have your baby for weeks! But it is also possible to be completely closed and have your baby in a matter of hours, so unless you’re in active labor, this is not a reliable sign of how soon your baby is coming.
What Do I Do Now?
We’ll talk more about coping with pain and pain management options in labor later. But as for the immediate “what do I do,” it depends.
If you are planning a hospital birth, and are fairly certain you’re in labor, call your doctor to let him know. Some don’t want to hear from you until you’re on your way in, so note his policies before calling.
Relax. If it’s night time or you are tired, try to sleep. Can’t sleep? At least rest. If you’re not tired, go on about your normal activities as long as you are in early labor. Make lunch, fold some laundry, do other light chores. Watch a movie, call a friend, do some scrapbooking. When you are unable to concentrate on all of this other “stuff,” try walking around, rocking, or sitting on a birthing ball (again, we’ll talk about coping mechanisms later).
When you have to focus completely on labor, it’s time to go to the hospital, if you’re going (or call your midwives if you’re not!). As long as you can, don’t worry about labor! When it’s serious, you will have no other choice!